Should I Go to the Emergency Department? [Infographic]

Emergency Department vs. Immediate Care

Not sure where to go for medical care when you're sick or hurt, especially after hours? Understanding the difference between the emergency department (ED) and immediate care centers will help you get the right care at the right time.

"A general rule of thumb is for life-threatening illnesses and severe health problems, go to the ED," says George T. Chiampas, DO, medical director of Community and Sports Event Preparedness Management at Northwestern Medicine.

EDs are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and offer the widest range of services, including diagnostic testing and access to specialists for conditions such as heart attack, stroke, head injuries and severe allergic reactions.

"The goal of emergency and trauma treatment is to stabilize patients and help them through the most critical part of their illness or injury," says Dr. Chiampas. "When you arrive in the ED, a triage nurse will take your vital signs and evaluate your symptoms to help prioritize the order patients are seen."

That means you may experience a longer wait time if your condition isn't life-threatening, as other patients ahead of you might have more severe symptoms.

"If you're experiencing a minor illness such as a sore throat or a twisted ankle, an immediate care center is a good option," says Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Physician Dennis A. Peacock, MD. "Now, you can get quality care in the comfort of your home during a virtual visit."

Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Centers offer online reservations and virtual visits seven days a week. Virtual visits may be available as late as midnight.

Immediate care centers are open during normal business hours, as well as extended hours, including evenings, weekends and holidays. In addition to shorter wait times, immediate care centers accept walk-ins, so you don't need an appointment to be seen by a provider. If you prefer to make a reservation, many urgent care centers, including Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care, offer online scheduling.

Immediate Care and COVID-19

If you believe you need to be tested for COVID-19, visit a Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Center for an evaluation or schedule a virtual visit to determine if a test is needed.

Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Centers also offer vaccination, including flu and COVID-19 vaccination, with no appointment necessary.


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